The Unique Grief of Betrayal Trauma

Written By Jessica Lamar, Psy.D, LMHC, LPC, CPTT

Grief following betrayal trauma is a cyclical process, often revisiting you in different forms. The traditional stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance can play out uniquely in the context of betrayal trauma.

Denial: The Initial Shock

In the aftermath of betrayal, the first reaction can be denial. It’s a mental buffer against the immediate shock, where you might find yourself thinking, “This can’t be happening.” This stage serves as a temporary protection from the overwhelming pain of betrayal.

Example: Discovering an affair, you might initially refuse to believe it, thinking there’s been some mistake.

Anger: The Rise of Resentment

Once the reality starts sinking in, denial may slowly fade, and is often replaced by anger. The anger can be directed at the person who betrayed you, yourself, or even at unrelated aspects of your life. It’s a natural response to feeling victimized and powerless.

  • Example: You might obsess over the details of the betrayal, feeling resentment toward your partner or a friend who deceived you.

Bargaining: The ‘What If’ Stage

Bargaining is an attempt to regain control or hope for a different outcome. It can involve clinging to ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ thoughts, fantasizing about how things could have been different.

  • Example: You may find yourself thinking, “If only I had paid more attention,” as a way to rationalize the betrayal or imagine you could have prevented it.

Depression: The Depths of Despair

Acknowledging the full magnitude of your loss leads to profound sadness. This stage is characterized by feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and despair, as the reality of betrayal sinks in deeply.

  • Example: You may experience a lack of motivation, isolation and mourning from loss of trust and the future you envisioned.

Acceptance: The Path to Healing

Acceptance doesn’t imply forgiveness or justification of the betrayal but rather an acknowledgment of your reality. This stage is about accepting what happened and starting to explore how you can move forward.

  • Example: Gradually, you begin to make peace with the event, acknowledging that while it will always be part of your story, it doesn’t define you.

Coping Strategies for Each Stage

Navigating through these stages requires patience and self-compassion. Here are some coping strategies:

  • Denial: Allow yourself time to absorb the shock. Journaling can be a helpful way to process your emotions slowly and safely.
  • Anger: Expressing your anger effectively through physical activities or creative outlets. Expressing your feelings in a safe environment can also be therapeutic.
  • Bargaining: Writing letters to yourself or the person who betrayed you (without necessarily sending them) can help articulate these thoughts and ‘what ifs.’
  • Depression: Seek safe support from friends, support groups, or a trauma informed therapist. Engage in self-care practices that bring you joy and comfort.
  • Acceptance: Discover new activities and hobbies! Consider therapy or counseling to work through your feelings and begin rebuilding your life.

Seeking Professional Help

 A therapist specialized in betrayal trauma can offer the support and guidance needed to heal. Surrounding yourself with understanding friends or support groups can also provide a sense of community and belonging during this challenging time. Please refer to our blog post on Finding the Right Therapist for you.

Betrayal trauma engulfs you in a whirlwind of emotions, but understanding and working through the stages of grief can be profound in your process. Healing is a personal process; it unfolds differently for everyone. Be kind to yourself as you walk this path, taking one step at a time, even it is not linear.


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